Monday, June 21, 2021

Curiosity damned the cat

Aquinas tells us that curiosity is a vice.  Before you clutch your pearls, dear village atheist reader, know that Aquinas was not condemning the pursuit of knowledge as such.  On the contrary, he refers to such pursuit as “studiousness,” and he regarded it is a virtue, not a vice.  “Curiosity,” as Aquinas uses the term, refers instead to intellectual pursuits that are disordered in some respect.  (Compare: The sin of wrath is not anger, but the indulgence of disordered anger; the sin of lust is not sexual desire, but the indulgence of disordered sexual desire; and so on.  In each case, it’s not the thing, but the abuse of the thing, that is condemned.)

Wednesday, June 16, 2021

Indeterminacy and the comics

When I was seventeen, I wanted to be Al Williamson, the legendary science-fiction and adventure strip comic book artist.  Williamson is best known for his work on titles like Weird Science and Weird Fantasy for EC Comics in the 1950s, though in his later years he would be associated with the Star Wars newspaper strip and comic books.  (That was a tough one for me, since I love Williamson but can’t stand Star Wars.)  The uncolored original art for the classic opening panel from EC’s “Space-Borne!” (which you see to the left) gives a good sense of the Williamson style – elegant, lush, heroic.

For a larger sample of Williamson’s work , you might check out his adaptation of Ray Bradbury’s “A Sound of Thunder” for EC’s Weird Science-Fantasy; the amusing “The Success Story” from Warren’s Creepy magazine; his adaptation of the movie Blade Runner for Marvel Comics; and “The Few and the Far” from Pacific Comics’ Alien Worlds.  A new book, Al Williamson: Strange World Adventures, offers a pleasing overview of the cartoonist’s career, with a great many pages of original art reproduced on large pages in black and white so that the details of Williamson’s pen and ink work are all visible.

Five Proofs in Spanish

My book Five Proofs of the Existence of God is now available in a Spanish translation.  It has for some time been available also in German.

For anyone interested in other translations of my books: The Last Superstition has been translated into Portuguese, French, and GermanPhilosophy of Mind is available in German.  A book of some of my essays is available in Romanian

Saturday, June 12, 2021

An exegetical principle from Fortescue

In his book The Early Papacy: To the Synod of Chalcedon in 451, Fr. Adrian Fortescue argues that the essential Catholic claims about the authority of the pope can all be found in patristic texts from the period referred to in the title.  You may or may not agree with him about that, but the papacy is not my topic here.  What I want to call attention to instead is a general exegetical principle Fortescue appeals to at the start.  He writes:

Before we quote our texts, there is yet a remark to be made.  Nearly all these quotations are quite well known already.  This does not affect their value.  If a text proves a thesis, it does not matter at all whether it is now quoted for the first or the hundredth time…  Naturally, people who deny [what we believe]… also have something to say about them.  In each case they make what attempt they can to show that the writer does not really admit what we claim, in spite of his words… The case is always the same.  We quote words, of which the plain meaning seems to be that their writer believed what we believe, in some point.  The opponent then tries to strip his words of this meaning… The answer is that, in all cases, we must suppose that a sane man, who uses definite expressions, means what he says, unless the contrary can be proved.  To polish off a statement with which you do not agree by saying that it is not meant, and leave the matter at that, is a silly proceeding.

Friday, June 4, 2021

Aquinas and Hayek on abstraction

Common sense and Aristotelian philosophy alike take it that we first know particular individual things (this triangle, that dog, etc.) and only afterward arrive at abstract ideas (triangularity, dogginess, etc.).  F. A. Hayek, who was a philosopher of mind as well as an economist and political philosopher, argued that this gets things the wrong way around.  The theme is most fully developed in his essay “The Primacy of the Abstract” (in his New Studies in Philosophy, Politics, Economics and the History of Ideas).  Thomas Aquinas, naturally, upholds the Aristotelian position.  However, though his views differ from Hayek’s in several crucial ways, there is a sense in which he allows that abstractions do have a kind of priority.  A compare and contrast seems worthwhile.  Let’s start with Hayek and then come back to Aquinas.

Thursday, June 3, 2021

Dave’s armstronging again

Longtime readers might recall Dave Armstrong, a Catholic apologist who, to put it gently, has a tendency to stretch the truth in bizarre ways.  His odd behavior has even inspired a definition:

armstrong, verb.  Boldly but casually to insinuate a falsehood in the hope that others will go along with it.  “Dave tried to armstrong me into a debate.  Can you believe that guy?”

Well, Dave “Stretch” Armstrong is at it again.  Apropos of nothing, he posted an article at his blog the other day suggesting that I have claimed that “Pope Francis favors divorce.”  That’s a pretty serious charge, but of course I have said no such thing.  Like other people, I have said that Amoris Laetitia is problematic insofar as its ambiguities seem to permit divorced Catholics living in adulterous relationships to take Holy Communion under certain circumstances, which would conflict with traditional Catholic teaching.  And like others (including Armstrong himself!), I have criticized the pope for not answering the dubia, and thereby making it clear that that is not what Amoris is meant to teach.  But that is a far cry from accusing the pope of actually favoring divorce.

Saturday, May 29, 2021

A reply to Dreher

Rod Dreher has responded to my recent post about him and Steve Skojec.  What follows is a reply.  Let me start by saying that I appreciate the good sportsmanship evident in his response.  Dreher has made his own personal spiritual crisis central to his writing about his understanding of Christianity and his reasons for leaving the Catholic Church.  There is simply no way one can disagree with him, however gently, without opening oneself up to the cheap and unjust accusation that one is being insensitive to the suffering he underwent.  Dreher does not play that game, which is to his credit.

Friday, May 28, 2021

Do not abandon your Mother

In Catholic theology, the Church is not to be identified with a mere aggregate of her members, not even those members who happen to hold ecclesiastical office at any particular moment.  She is an institution which existed before any of her current membership did and will continue to exist when they are gone.  But more than that, she is a corporate person, who can be said to think and to will, and to have rights and duties and other personal characteristics.  Even more specifically, she is a person of a feminine nature, the Bride of Christ and the Holy Mother of the faithful, nourishing them through sacrament and doctrine in a way analogous to a human mother’s nourishing of her children.

Saturday, May 22, 2021

The trouble with capitalism

It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God.  (Matthew 19:24)

For what will it profit a man if he gains the whole world, and loses his own soul?  (Mark 8:36)

Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God. (Matthew 4:4)

When people use or hear the word “capitalism,” some of the things they might bring to mind are:

1. The institution of private property, including private ownership of the basic means of production

2. Market competition

3. The existence of corporations as legal persons

4. Inequalities in wealth and income

5. An economic order primarily oriented to the private sector, with government acting at the margins and only where necessary

Friday, May 14, 2021

Intellectuals in hell


It is by virtue of our rational or intellectual powers that we are made in God’s image and have a dignity nothing else in the material world possesses.  As Aquinas writes:

Augustine says (Gen. ad lit. vi, 12): “Man's excellence consists in the fact that God made him to His own image by giving him an intellectual soul, which raises him above the beasts of the field.” Therefore things without intellect are not made to God's image…  It is clear, therefore, that intellectual creatures alone, properly speaking, are made to God's image.  (Summa Theologiae I.93.2)

And again, a couple of articles later: “Man is said to be the image of God by reason of his intellectual nature” (Summa Theologiae I.93.4).

Monday, May 10, 2021

Grisez on balancing health against other considerations

Now that millions have been vaccinated, bogeyman Donald Trump has departed, and life is starting to get back to normal, some people are getting some critical distance on the health crisis of the last year – which was caused by the reaction to the virus no less than the virus itself.  Liberal magazine The Atlantic criticizes “the liberals who can’t quit lockdown.”  On Real Time, Bill Maher challenges his fellow left-wingers to own up to their exaggerations and misinformation on the subject of COVID-19.  On Daily Clout, feminist Naomi Wolf interviews Stanford’s Dr. Jay Bhattacharya, who says that the lockdowns were “biggest public health mistake we've ever made” and caused harms “worse than COVID.”

Monday, May 3, 2021

The idols of the mind

Thomas Harper is one of the great forgotten Neo-Scholastic writers of the nineteenth century.  I discussed his wonderful little book The Immaculate Conception in a blog post many years ago.  He is especially notable for his unusually rigorous and thorough treatment of abstract topics in metaphysics, in works such as the massive three-volume The Metaphysics of the School.  Harper will sometimes interrupt a sustained exercise in abstract reasoning with a non-technical aside, as he does in the course of discussing the metaphysics of truth in Volume I.  He there offers (at pp. 461-466) a commentary on Francis Bacon’s “idols of the mind” which is even more relevant now than it was in Harper’s day.

Wednesday, April 28, 2021

Social media’s fifth circle

Marshall McLuhan’s famous remark that “the medium is the message” was never more true than in the case of Twitter.  And the message is malign.  I would not go so far as to claim that the platform is a malum in se, but it is close.  The reason is not because of its political biases, though that hardly helps.  It’s because the medium of its nature tends positively to encourage activity contrary to what is good for us given our nature as rational social animals.

Friday, April 23, 2021

Corporate persons

A neglected insight of Scholastic political philosophy and traditional conservatism is that institutions can have a personal nature.  The Church, a government, a business firm, a university, a club, and similar social formations are like this.  They can be said to make decisions, to act and to be morally and legally responsible for the consequences of those actions, and to have rights and duties.  They can be praised or blamed, loved or hated, and loyally supported or betrayed.  They can be born, grow, flourish, decline, and die.  They can exhibit distinctive virtues, vices, and other character traits.  They can become corrupted or be reformed.  Since they have such personal attributes (or something analogous to them, anyway) the tradition refers to them as moral persons or corporate persons.

Sunday, April 18, 2021

Voila! An open thread! (Updated)

UPDATE 4/20: Lately the comments sections have been filling up quickly.  Some readers seem unaware that after the count reaches 200 comments, you have to click the "Load more..." prompt that appears in small print at the bottom of the combox in order to view newer comments.  That's part of Blogger's algorithm and out of my control, sorry.  So, if you're worried that your comment is not showing up, never fear.  It's there, but you have to click the prompt to see it.

How does an annoying off-topic comment suitable only for deletion get transformed into a stimulating on-topic conversation starter?  Through the magic of the open thread post.  Whatever is on your mind, from The Prestige to Under Siege, from the Ponzo illusion to jazz-rock fusion, from Paul Bernays to Ricky Gervais, post away and stand back in wonder as your comment not only doesn’t disappear, but may even get a response!

Tuesday, April 13, 2021

Aquinas and the problem of evil

My article “The Thomistic Dissolution of the Logical Problem of Evil” has just been published in the journal Religions, and is available online.  (Follow the links to opt for either the HTML format or PDF.)  It is a contribution to a special issue devoted to responses to James Sterba’s recent book Is a Good God Logically Possible? 

Friday, April 9, 2021

What is mathematics about?

I commend to you James Franklin’s latest article “Mathematics as a Science of Nonabstract Reality: Aristotelian Realist Philosophies of Mathematics.”  It’s a helpful brief survey of different ways that an Aristotelian alternative to Platonist and nominalist approaches to mathematics might be developed.  (Franklin explores these issues in greater depth in his book An Aristotelian Realist Philosophy of Mathematics.) 

Friday, April 2, 2021

Frege on objectivity

It can be an interesting exercise every now and then to reread something that had a profound effect on you earlier in life.  In my case, Gottlob Frege’s grand 1918 essay “The Thought” is a piece that I find always repays renewed study.  I think I first read it almost 30 years ago, and it was one of several philosophical works on thought and language that began to break the hold on me of the metaphysical naturalism I had picked up as an undergraduate – though that was a slow process, taking a decade fully to unfold. 

Friday, March 26, 2021

Tennant on Aquinas’s Second Way

Every now and then I point out examples of professional academic philosophers badly misinterpreting some traditional argument for God’s existence, or mind-body dualism, or a natural law conclusion in ethics, or some other idea that is out of step with the naturalistic zeitgeist.  This is, I think, a useful exercise, because it shows how the conventional wisdom on these matters does not rest on actual knowledge or understanding of the ideas criticized.  It is instead held in place by errors and unexamined prejudices that mainstream academics who do not specialize in these matters tend to repeat back to one another and pass on to each new generation of graduate students, who then enter the profession and also repeat them back to each other and to their own students.  This has, over time, created a general assumption that “everyone knows” that the arguments are no good and not worth investigating further, even though a little effort would show that what “everyone knows” is demonstrably false.

Saturday, March 20, 2021

Meta-abstraction in the physical and social sciences

One of the themes of Aristotle’s Revenge is the centrality of mathematical abstraction to modern scientific method, and the ways that it both affords modern physics tremendous predictive power but also, if we are not careful, is prone to generate philosophical fallacies and metaphysical illusions.  This is especially so where we are dealing with abstractions from abstractions – meta-abstractions, if you will. 

In his recent book on the philosophy of time, Raymond Tallis notes how this has happened in modern thinking about the nature of space and time.  First, physical space has come to be conflated with geometry.  Whereas the notions of a point, a line, a plane and the like were originally merely simplifying abstractions from concrete physical reality, the modern tendency has been to treat them as if they were the constituents of concrete physical reality.  But then a second stage of abstraction occurs when geometrical concepts are in turn conflated with values in a coordinate system.  Points are defined in terms of numbers, relations between points in terms of numerical intervals, length, width and depth in terms of axes originated from a point, and so on.  Time gets folded into the system by representing it with a further axis.  Creative mathematical manipulations of this doubly abstract system of representation are then taken to reveal surprising truths about the nature of the concrete space and time we actually live in.

Friday, March 12, 2021

Lacordaire on the existence of God

Preaching on theological topics is a tricky business.  The more substantive and rigorous a sermon, the greater the danger of its being inaccessible to the average listener.  But the more accessible it is, the greater the danger of its being woolly and banal.  (In our egalitarian and mawkish age, the latter vice is by far the more common one.  Indeed, I don’t think I’ve ever heard a sermon that exhibited the former vice.)   The 19th-century Dominican theologian Henri-Dominique Lacordaire was famously able to strike the right balance.  Like other writers of the period, he has a style that to the contemporary reader is bound to seem a bit purple and prolix.  But, I think, he stops short of excess even on that score – indeed, the tone is, if anything, refreshing.  Whereas rhetorical excess in contemporary preaching tends to pull our attention downward, to our own petty sentimentalities, Lacordaire’s flourishes raise it up to God.

Tuesday, March 9, 2021

Aquinas on video

Many readers will be familiar already with the Thomistic Institute’s outstanding Aquinas 101 series of videos, which provide brief introductions to a wide variety of topics from Aquinas’s thought.  The Institute has now announced a new video series, Aquinas 101: Science and Faith, which will explore topics such as evolution, neuroscience, miracles, quantum mechanics, psychology, scientific method, reductionism, and the like.  The series begins on March 16, and the videos will be released weekly.  And on March 10, the trailer for the series will premiere and the Institute will host a live Q & A.

The Thomistic Institute also makes available a wide variety of other excellent video materials.  And while we’re on the subject, I should also call attention to a similar but different project, the superb iAquinas series of videos, which are in English, French, and Spanish.  Hours and hours of worthwhile viewing!

Thursday, March 4, 2021

Preventive war and quarantining the healthy


A “preventive war” is a war undertaken proactively against a merely potential enemy, who has neither initiated hostilities nor shown any sign of intending imminently to do so.  The Japanese attack on the United States at Pearl Harbor is a famous example.  This is not to be confused with a “preemptive war,” which involves a proactive attack on an enemy who has shown signs of intending to initiate hostilities.  The Arab-Israeli Six-Day War is a standard example.

Thursday, February 25, 2021

Smith and divine eternity

Quentin Smith, one of the most formidable of contemporary atheist philosophers, died late last year.  One of the reasons he was formidable is that he actually knew what he was talking about.  Most of his fellow atheist philosophers do not, as Smith himself lamented.  In his article “The Metaphilosophy of Naturalism,” Smith opined that “the great majority of naturalist philosophers have an unjustified belief that naturalism is true and an unjustified belief that theism (or supernaturalism) is false.”  He thought that most of them held their opinion as a prejudice, and didn’t know or engage with the most serious arguments of the other side.  If that is true even of most atheist philosophers, it is even more true of atheists outside of philosophy – other secularist academics, New Atheist propagandists, Reddit loudmouths, et al.

Sunday, February 21, 2021

Friday, February 12, 2021

Can a Thomist reason to God a priori?

A priori knowledge, as modern philosophers use the term, is knowledge that can be gained independently of sensory experience.  Knowledge of mathematical and logical truths – 2 + 2 = 4, ~ (p • ~ p), etc. – provide the stock examples.  Anselm’s ontological argument contrasts with arguments like Aquinas’s Five Ways by trying to reason to God’s existence in a manner that is a priori in this sense.  Aquinas begins with empirical premises (about the reality of change, the existence of causal chains in nature, etc.) and reasons to God as the cause of the facts described in the premises.  Anselm’s argument, by contrast, begins with a definition of God as the greatest conceivable being and an axiom to the effect that what exists in reality is greater than what exists in thought alone, and reasons to God’s existence as the logical implication of these a priori premises. 

Saturday, February 6, 2021

What is religion?

The question is notoriously controversial.  Consider a definition like the following, from Bernard Wuellner’s Dictionary of Scholastic Philosophy:

religion, n. 1. the sum of truths and duties binding man to God. 2. personal belief and worship in relation to God.  Religion includes creed, cult, and code.

By “creed,” what Wuellner has in mind is a system of doctrine.  A “cult,” in this context, has to do with a system of rituals of the kind associated with worship and the like.  The “code” referred to has to do with a system of moral principles.  So, the definition is telling us that doctrines, rituals, and moral principles are among the key elements of religion.

Sunday, January 31, 2021

Princess Elisabeth of Bohemia on soul-body interaction

The letters exchanged between Descartes and Princess Elisabeth of Bohemia – especially their 1643 exchange on the interaction problem – are among the best-known correspondences in the history of philosophy.  And justly so, for they help to elucidate the true nature of that crucial problem and the inadequacy of Descartes’ response to it.  Though I think that in at least one important respect, Elisabeth errs in her characterization of the issue.

Monday, January 25, 2021

Koons on time and relative actuality

Rob Koons has reactivated his AnalyticThomist blog, which you must check out if you are interested in metaphysics done in a way that brings analytic philosophy and Thomism into conversation.  Rob was also recently interviewed on the What We Can’t Not Talk About podcast on the topic of Aristotle and modern science.  That topic is the focus of his recent work, and he has been especially interested in how Aristotelians ought to approach quantum mechanics and the nature of time. 

Thursday, January 21, 2021

Narrative thinking and conspiracy theories


“Just because you're paranoid doesn't mean they aren't after you” is one of the most famous lines from Joseph Heller’s Catch-22.  I propose a corollary: Just because they’re after you doesn’t mean you’re not paranoid.

Friday, January 15, 2021

McGinn on the question of being

Colin McGinn is a philosopher whose work I always find interesting even when I disagree with it, which is often.  His book Philosophical Provocations: 55 Short Essays is made to be dipped into when one is in the mood for something substantive but not too heavy going.  And it is accurately titled, since on reading it I was indeed provoked – specifically, by the article on “The Question of Being.”

McGinn characterizes the issue as:

the question [of] …what it is for something to have being.  What does existence itself consist in – what is its nature?  When something exists, what exactly is true of it?  What kind of condition is existence?  How does an existent thing differ from a nonexistent thing? (p. 211)

Friday, January 8, 2021

The Gnostic heresy’s political successors

The Western world is the creation of the Church, and the crisis of the West is always at bottom the crisis of the Church.  This is especially so where the Church has receded into the background of the Western mind – where men’s plans are hatched in the name of progress, science, social justice, equity, or some other purportedly secular value, and make little or no reference to religion.  For liberalism, socialism, communism, scientism, progressivism, identity politics, globalism, and all the rest – this Hydra’s head of modernist projects, however ostensibly secular, is united by two features that are irreducibly theological.

Wednesday, January 6, 2021

Lawlessness begets lawlessness

As someone who is on record condemning lawlessness and sedition, I am appalled and horrified by what happened today in Washington, D.C.  It is indefensible and inexcusable, and the rioters and vandals ought to be prosecuted.  But then, the rioting and vandalism that occurred in Washington last summer – and in Minneapolis, Portland, Seattle, and other major cities – was also appalling, horrifying, indefensible, and inexcusable, and its instigators should have been prosecuted.  Yet some of the people who are now talking tough about law and order were then blathering on about “mostly peaceful protests,” “defunding the police,” and other such lunacy.  We are reaping what they sowed.  If you are going to tolerate and excuse left-wing political violence, you are opening the door to right-wing political violence.  But if you rightly condemn the latter, then to be consistent, you must condemn the former.  You must insist that all citizens respect law and order – your political allies no less than your political enemies.

Wednesday, December 30, 2020

Year-end open thread

Let’s bring this annus horribilis to an end with an open thread.  That annoyingly off-topic comment of yours I keep deleting?  It’s now on-topic, so bring it.  From Richard Rorty to Get Shorty, from Bend Sinister to Yes Minister, from Tanqueray to Ricky Jay… nothing now stands in your way.  Apart from basic blog etiquette, naturally.  Trolls are still kindly invited to get lost.  (Previous open threads archived here.)

Saturday, December 26, 2020

The access problem for mathematical Platonism

Mathematical Platonism takes numbers and other mathematical objects to exist in a third realm distinct from the material and mental worlds, after the fashion of the Forms of Plato’s famous theory.  A common objection to this view, associated with philosophers like Paul Benacerraf, is epistemological.  In order for us to have knowledge of something, say these philosophers, we must be in causal contact with it.  But if numbers are abstract objects outside of space and time, then we cannot be in any such contact with them, because they would be causally inert and inaccessible to perception.  So, if Platonism were true, we couldn’t have knowledge of them.  Yet we do have such knowledge, which (the argument concludes) implies that Platonism is false.  This is known as the “access problem” for mathematical Platonism.

Sunday, December 20, 2020

District Attorney Michel Foucault

In the diabolical new disorder of things metastasizing around us, churchmen subvert doctrine rather than teaching it, and public authorities subvert law and order rather than maintaining it.  To be sure, these cancers have been slowly spreading throughout the bodies ecclesiastical and politic for many decades.  What is new is the sudden ghastliness with which an aggressive heterodoxy and criminality have broken through to the surface, making the reality of the disease evident to all but the most deluded of minds. 

Saturday, December 12, 2020

What was the Holy Roman Empire?

According to Aristotelian-Thomistic political philosophy, the state is a natural institution.  It has as its natural end the provision of goods that are necessary for our well-being as rational social animals, but would not be otherwise available (such as defense against aggressors).  According to traditional Catholic theology, the state also serves functions relevant to the realization of the supernatural end of salvation, such as protecting the Church. 

However, while these things are true of the institution of the state in general, they do not entail the existence of any particular state.  That is to say, while the natural law and our supernatural end require that there be states, they don’t require that there exists Germany, specifically, or the United States, or China.  For the most part, the same thing is true of empires.  Nothing in natural law or in our supernatural end requires that there be a British Empire, specifically, or a Mongol Empire.

Friday, December 4, 2020

Augustine on divine illumination


Plato held that the Form of the Good makes other Forms intelligible to us in a way comparable to how the sun makes physical objects visible to us.  He also took our knowledge of the Forms to be inexplicable in empirical terms, since the Forms have a necessity, eternity, and perfection that the objects of the senses lack.  His solution was to regard knowledge of the Forms as a kind of recollection of a direct access the soul had to them prior to its entrapment in the body.

Thursday, November 26, 2020

Links for Thanksgiving

What the hell happened to the Drudge Report?  The Tablet investigates.

The rediscovery of hell.  At First Things, Cardinal Pell abandons Balthasarian wishful thinking.

Never mind 2020.  David Oderberg asks: How did Donald Trump win in 2016?

Reading Religion reviews Steven Jensen’s book on Thomistic psychology.

The AARP magazine on the heartbreaking last days of Stan Lee. 

Monday, November 23, 2020

Church and Culture radio interview

Last week I was interviewed by Deal Hudson for his show Church and Culture on Ave Maria Radio.  The interview lasts an hour and ranges over my work in general.  You can listen to it here.

You can find links to other radio interviews and the like here.